The Cat Has Only Shown Its Fangs: How China Will React to Trump’s Challenge

Since winning the presidential election in the United States, Donald Trump has moved from general anti-China rhetoric to specifics, first talking to the president of Taiwan and then saying that the One-China policy may not be completely guaranteed, as previously established by the United States between 1972 and 1982.

The statements have left Beijing “seriously concerned,” as the incoming US President has put into question one of the foundations of US-China relations. According to Cliff Kupchan, Chairman of the Eurasia Group, Trump’s ambiguous position on Taiwan also means that all possible negotiations between the US and China will end before they begin, as the One China policy is a fundamental cornerstone of bilateral relations.

“For the US, the main implication is that, until the US position on Taiwan is clarified for Beijing, the Chinese leadership will not be prepared to discuss any other issues in US-China relations, such as trade or currency policy, or North Korea,” Kupchan told

Kupchan noted that the current official US position is based on a clever ambiguity, as it acknowledges China’s position that Taiwan is part of China, but maintains unofficial relations with Taipei.

In this context, ending the ambiguity and recognizing Taiwan would end all possible negotiations with China, as the cornerstone of bilateral relations would be removed, and Trump appears to consciously be moving in that direction, according to Kupchan.

“Trump is serious about his new and provocative approach to the Taiwan question. The evolution of Trump’s actions (from a symbolic phone call to a major public statement) strongly suggests that he and his advisors will try to use the One-China Policy as a negotiating card. Trump could have walked away from the Tsai phone call (and Beijing gave him space to do so) but the latest policy statement is much more than that,” Kupchan said.

Trump’s actions were met with caution in China. Sheng Shiliang, Research Fellow at the Xinhua Center for World Affairs Studies, noted that China does not recognize Trump’s exceptionalism or power to decide the status of China and Taiwan.

“Fortunately, or unfortunately, Trump is not god. He did not give Taiwan to China and he will not decide the fate of China’s reunification. We have not even thought of asking the ‘Washington Party Committee’, whether Taiwan belongs to China,” Sheng told

Trump’s most recent interview also limits China’s flexibility towards the US, according to Kupchan, as it questions China’s idea of sovereignty. This, in turn, puts China’s leadership under pressure, and ends the possibility of dialogue.

“Beijing is under pressure to act firmly given that the leadership’s initial response to Trump was temperate,” Kupchan said.

Sheng alluded to Deng Xiaoping’s statement regarding economic systems (with the color of a cat being unimportant as long as it catches mice), by saying that his colleagues originally thought that whatever the color of the cat elected to the White House, gray or yellow, it remains an American cat. Now, the American cat is much more vicious and cunning, than thought before, but for now it only shows its fangs and does not charge.

“When it comes to vitally important interests of the Motherland, for example sovereignty or China’s territorial integrity, our slogan will be ‘not a step back’,” Sheng added.

As for implications for security in the Taiwan Strait, both Sheng and Kupchan noted that tensions will likely rise.

“China will also likely penalize Taiwan for Trump’s statements and actions. China may increase its economic sanctions against Taiwan. It may also conduct a high profile military exercise in the Taiwan Strait. Beijing sees the Taiwan issue as one that directly implicates its legitimacy and, as such, is a critical issue,” Kupchan told

Sheng also went a step forward, saying that as the One China policy is the cornerstone of China-US relations, this will lead to consequences for Taiwan.

“This will induce the Chinese to make the decision to ‘return Taiwan to the bosom of the Motherland’ in a more abrupt manner. It does not matter whether it is peaceful, military, or hybrid. The ‘cursed American imperialist’ makes our victory draw nearer as fast as he can,” Sheng said.

Sheng also touched on the issue of a “trade war,” which Donald Trump previously said he would pursue by putting a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods.

“When it comes to a possible ‘trade war,’ we will be ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.’ It will be a double-edged blade [for Trump] because modern trade is a reciprocal exchange and the Chinese are not overseas colonialists who exchanged cheap beads for the gold from barbarians, sorry, the Americans,” Sheng said.

Touching on the impact of Trump’s statements on US public diplomacy in China, Sheng noted that they have greatly impacted youth. China has a large community of nationalists, primarily composed of bloggers and social media users, who voice anger and concerns about foreign powers and what they perceive as the weakness of the Chinese government. The internet-based nationalists also organize street rallies after major diplomatic incidents, such as the 2012 demonstrations against Japan during a standoff over Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands.

“I regularly read social networks, and I am amazed by the sudden increase in patriotic vitriol among Chinese users of the web after Trump’s anti-Chinese statements. He was successful in increasing the political consciousness of the Chinese youth 100 times more than the all-powerful Propaganda Department of the Central Committee of my dear Communist Party. And for this, thank you, Comrade Wolf!” Sheng concluded.
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